During the height of the Cold War, a Soviet submarine mysteriously sank in the Pacific Ocean. K-129 held a crew of nearly 100 sailors, as well as a full payload of nuclear missiles. Following its loss, the US Navy noted the flurry of Soviet activity dispatched to locate the ship and saw an opportunity to gain access to their rival’s military secrets. They decided to locate and then steal the sub. The fact that this was physically, scientifically, and perhaps legally impossible led the team assigned to the project to — often ad hoc, or accidentally — create, iterate, and apply technologies that would radically change the transportation industry forever.
Author and journalist Josh Dean’s new book is The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History and tells the story of the project, which aimed to grab the sub from its resting place — three miles below the surface of the ocean. Spearheaded by the CIA and funded by a top secret black budget, the program required numerous uninvented technologies, an outrageous vehicle to carry and implement them, and a fantastical cover story to keep the Russians and the public in the dark—one that unexpectedly helped jump start the existence of an entire industry.
The ship that the CIA contractors designed was called the Glomar Explorer, and it was like nothing that had been built before. One of the largest ships ever constructed, the central section of its 600-foot-long deck was dominated by an enormous derrick, which could lower 17,000 feet of metal piping down to the bottom of the sea. Its hull concealed a huge claw that could be extended on this three miles of piping to grab the sub, along with a secret, giant-doored cavity capable of retracting, swallowing, and transporting it.
The Glomar Explorer was thus extremely conspicuous — it was so big, it could be seen from space. But because it had to operate openly and with impunity on the open seas, the CIA had to invent a believable cover story so the Russians would not become suspicious of their real motives. The one they settled on was that it was an experimental seafloor mining ship, built for an industry that did not exist at the time, and owned by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who was pressed into service to back up these claims. To foster the perception that this was true, the CIA hired experts to write scientific papers for mining and shipping publications, presented the ship and its mission at industry conferences and publications, and “leaked” the story to the mainstream press to encourage coverage.
“I’ve been calling it the most specific tool ever made,” Dean says in an interview with The Verge. “It wasn’t intended as a step toward anything. It was built to literally do one thing, which was to pull a two million pound hunk of steel off the bottom of the ocean.” At the time, it was so beyond the capabilities of any machine on the planet, creating it required pie-eyed thinking, a nine-figure blank check, and access to some of the nation’s best scientific tools, thinkers, and contractors.
This kind of carte blanche engineering was not an uncommon practice during the era. At the time, there was a shared belief that technological and social challenges could be solved by putting the smartest experts in the world on the topic, and funding them until they figured it out, and that, because investment and possible benefits would be high, the government should be the source of this funding. NASA is a key example of that. But Dean argues that the CIA was another.
“Because of the secretive nature of the CIA, this isn’t widely understood, but the Director of Science and Technology at that time was essentially this ridiculous skunk-works for ambitious engineering,” Dean says. “In less than twenty years, they built the U2, the highest-flying surveillance plane ever made, and they built the SR-71, still the fastest plane ever made. But the stakes of the Cold War were so high the argument was, the survival of the nation and the planet depends on this.”
Like many experimental government programs in the era, much of the boundary-leaping technology developed for the ship ended up having extremely relevant applications. “Dynamic positioning was the big one,” Dean says, referring to the use of thrusters at a ship’s corners, which used special markers on the seafloor to help the ship maintain its position. This technology became important as offshore oil drilling became a standard practice, since it allowed a ship to hover over a specific drill point and insert and reinsert a drill serially into the same hole.
“It was also one of the first, if not the first, ships to have satellite positioning, to make sure that it was in the right place on the map,” Dean says, “this was so state of the art at that time.”
All of this was powered by some of the first computers ever loaded aboard a ship, but more impressive than these early, room-sized machines was the computation involved in designing this behemoth and all of its necessary systems. “This was all done one slide rules and calculators,” Dean says of the engineering team. “There were no computer models, these guys were doing it on paper with pencil basically.”
Closing the circle between fantasy and reality—like Argo meets The Abyss—scientific, industry, and popular interest in the CIA’s invented backstory actually helped jump-start the international practice of seafloor mining. A number of countries began exploring the possibility, including the Russians, who had clearly swallowed the phony tale.
More pointedly, after its top secret mission was complete, the Glomar Explorer actually went into service as an experimental sea-floor mining vehicle in the now-real industry its fake cover helped to invent. The ship, then owned by Lockheed, was sent out for tests off Catalina Island in California, and successfully picked up manganese nodules from the bottom of the ocean. However, there was an issue. “We picked up a lot more nodules that we expected and jammed the system,” says Steve Bailey, a mechanical engineer who operated the tethered mining probe at the time, told The Verge. “And once it jammed, we couldn’t un-jam it.”
There were plans to send the ship back out in this capacity, but new global sea treaties, plummeting mineral and metal prices, and other environmental and economic disincentives conspired to bring the program to an end. However, Bailey believes it still may come to fruition. “Lockheed still owns the rights to the seafloor where we were working,” he says. “There are estimates that at the rate at which nickel is currently being used, we may run out in four years, and some nodules are rich in nickel. There are some places where rare earth minerals are in the nodules as well, and the only place where you can get them now is China. So there may be interest again.”
Meanwhile, strong entrepreneurial government funding for outrageous, but potentially revolutionary, ideas, seems to be at an all time low, with the Trump administration ignoring or defunding science aimed at alternative energy, combatting climate change, and space exploration, and even of innovative collaborations between government and existing industry. Speaking on research that occurred during the Cold War, Dean says, “It was really a golden era of moonshots, literally and figuratively.”